While the first four episodes of the five-part miniseries usually provides great insight into a team's development during training camp, the last episode is the worst. It has nothing to do with the production quality of NFL Films, or even the narration of those storylines needed to keep people interested. That's top notch; the type of quality that makes you tune into Hard Knocks, no matter what team is being featured. All of that was great and we expect nothing less.
It's the cuts.
The explosive result of extreme emotional investment finally boils over when players learn of their NFL fates. Veterans like John Conner and John Skelton know the harsh reality of the NFL, the business side of things. Their careers will continue. Yet, who knows where Bruce Taylor or Terrence Stephens go. Have their career paths taken an abrupt end? Will they have the opportunity later? What about DeQuin Evans, who won't play at all this year, despite receiving a suspension for taking something that included a banned substance that he didn't know was there. An ankle injury will eventually force him onto IR, so it's a wash anyway. But he's going to keep fighting. In the end, he grew on me. And it only took three years and Hard Knocks to make that happen.
The John Conner story was the most surprising. Not from us. We had known since Saturday morning that he was gone. Teammates were shocked. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wanted to fight for him. He took jabs when he could. But ultimately the fight wasn't very enthusiastic, save for the occasional uppercut that he's the best fullback. I think he knew that it was a losing battle. So did Conner, who asked Marvin Lewis bluntly what he could have done differently, clearly upset and aware that he didn't have the greatest of opportunities with Charles around. Lewis paused, almost shocked to have been asked, but clarified the talking points that we've heard about Orson Charles all summer: Special teams, youth, versatility. Running backs coach Hue Jackson correctly pointed out that Cincinnati doesn't have an offense that utilizes a true fullback, favoring Charles. What I found most impressive after the cuts were decided was Charles reaching out to Conner, saying it was awesome to meet and hopes for the best. He left the message on his voice mail.
It wasn't all about cuts though. Anna and Domata Peko learned the sex of their third child. It's a boy. And Peko is thrilled to add another member to his personal defensive line, needing one more for his favored 4-3 base defense. We followed Aaron Maybin to his personal studio, where many of his paintings were displayed. Including the painting of the angel that he started during the fourth episode, packaged and sent back to him by Jayson DiManche. Margus Hunt is finally one of the boys, with beautiful wit. Mike Zimmer took his son Adam out for archery. For some reason, on the list of things that we envision the Zimmer boys doing during their free time, shooting an arrow was on there. It was good to see Larry Black return, sitting among his defensive line mates during a meeting.
DiManche made the team. We knew that going in. We didn't experience the painful waiting game until Marvin Lewis called that he made the team. He called his mom soon after. Everyone celebrates. And Marvin Lewis, when telling these guys that they've made it, is like the Santa Clause of everyone. You genuinely feel that he's thrilled when a player that wasn't expected to have a chance, rise up and claim what wasn't his to begin with. Same thing with Orson. There were a couple of players that Lewis wanted to tell personally that they've made it. And if we're comparing Duke Tobin to Jim Lippincott, it's clear that Tobin tries to comfort the players more. There's no B.S. there, but there's an honest assessment; something that the players can take with them to continue their NFL journey. And who didn't have the same reaction that linebackers coach Paul Guenther had when Emmanuel Lamur went down during the preseason finale?
The fifth and final episode of Hard Knocks has aired, which in a way marks the start of the regular season for most of us. All of the camps have come and gone, cuts are made and Wednesday afternoon kicks off the regular season routine as the team practices for Chicago. We experienced Hard Knocks '09 and again this year and I'll say again what I said four years ago.
That was pretty awesome.